Literary agents and their dark art

22 February 2017

As an academic publisher, I deal with all of our authors directly from the outset, often face to face (say, at a conference). There are no intermediaries (except for the occasional referral). As such, the world of literary agents and the mega-dollar book deals they are so often associated with are foreign territory for me.

Most scholarly books are aimed at a quite narrow academic market (though often with related professionals also in mind – journalists, policy makers, NGOs, businesses and the like). However, some scholars (but pitifully few) are interested in and capable of writing for, and reaching, a much broader audience (TV historians being a good example). Handled rightly, their books can sell in the tens of thousands, or more, instead in the low hundreds (as typical for many scholarly books).

If you have such a book in mind, there is probably little point in contacting me or indeed most academic publishers. You need to look elsewhere – and that is where literary agents are important.

Sure, there are exceptions (for instance, the massive bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty, was published in English by Harvard University Press). But in general such non-fiction bestsellers are not published by academic presses but by trade presses whose target audience is the general public rather than academics or professionals.

This is a glitzy, high-stakes world where the minimum acceptable print run may be 5,000 or 10,000 copies – a very different world from that of scholarly publishing. And in that world a vital role is performed by literary agents in finding and fostering new talent, in finding the right publisher, negotiating the best deal and (not least) supporting long-lasting and successful writing careers.

This is a dark art, little understood by outsiders.

Every so often I am asked by a writer about how to approach a literary agent. I shrug and point them in the direction of publications like the Literary Marketplace. Really, I have few clues if I am honest.

juliet-m

Today, I have learnt much more simply by reading a short post by Juliet Mushens in The Bookseller. Packed full of ideas and links to outside resources, it is an eye-opener.

I hope her business booms as a result.


Cover design, brutal realities

16 November 2015

Nowadays, it is rare that an academic book is seen in an actual bookstore (and, if it is, not for long). Price is a factor here (see below). There are exceptions, of course, one of them for NIAS Press being Chris Hudson’s Beyond Singapore Girl, which continues to resonate (and sell) especially in the Singaporean society it analyses.

But as discussed elsewhere the brutal reality for most books found in any bookstore is to appear spine-out – as can be seen in this line of books recently photographed in a Kinokuniya bookstore in Singapore.

Kino-bookshelf

The same goes for books found on library bookshelves.

Very few books are displayed cover-out in all their glory. In bookstores, normally full-frontal display is reserved for bestsellers or those other titles being heavily promoted (sometimes publishers pay booksellers for such special treatment, not least a premium location inside the store).

Since academic books rarely appear in bookstores, do covers matter then?

Arguably, yes. Bookstores and libraries are not the only places where books are visible. Physically they also will appear in conference exhibits, on display at the author’s home institute and certainly in her own office. But in a host of other places, a book’s cover is visible – in marketing material (catalogues, flyers, etc.), newsletters and (not least) face-out on the virtual bookshelves of all of the online bookstores.

Compare the listings on Amazon.com of the same book by Chris Hudson with a book from a different gender series from another publisher. Personally, I know which book I would rather show my colleagues, friends and family.

compare-covers

We’ll say nothing about the price (though obviously this matters, especially if the book buyer is an ordinary person with limited funds).


Thesis versus book, simply put

1 May 2015

On an entirely different matter, my colleague Paul Kratoska from NUS Press in Singapore wrote the following today:

The advice is simple. All the writing most students do up to and including the PhD is about showing what the writer knows. A book is about showing readers something they don’t know. To do that, it’s necessary to repeat some things they probably do already know, but the heart of the matter is explaining what a researcher has found that’s new and doing it in a way that readers will understand.

The job of the publisher is to try to figure out if the topic will attract enough readers to make this a viable endeavour. Authors can help by writing for as broad an audience as seems reasonable. The editor of the Journal of Asian Studies suggests adopting the “one-over rule” – writing something that will interest readers who are adjacent to the author’s work geographically, and adjacent in terms of discipline. It’s sound advice. In this case the issue is writing for readers who don’t do [disciplinary field of book concerned] but would be intrigued by work from a writer who is.

Wise words!


Indie authors – unstoppable?

18 May 2014

As usual, I attended the London Book Fair in mid-April (the last time it will be held at Earls Court in west London due to the fair’s ballooning size). In part this was to meet with authors and talk business with our partners. However, in addition, with its excellent seminar programme and hundreds of exhibitors promoting new products (e.g. in ebook conversion), the LBF is an ideal venue to explore new trends in the world of publishing.

One phenomenon really starting to have an impact is self-publishing. In general publishing, the number of so-called ‘indie titles’ is growing in double digits annually with self-published authors likely to account for half of all books listed on Amazon within the next year or so.

This upsurge could be seen at the LBF where the seminars aimed at authors were packed tight with crowds of attendees listening outside as well.

LBF-author-seminar

So far, self-publishing has not really affected scholarly publishing because of the gatekeeper effect of the peer review process. Nonetheless, with more and more scholars working collaboratively and going down the Creative Commons route to produce course book material (for instance), that situation is likely to change.


Thesis vs book

13 May 2013

In my previous post, I asserted that ‘a thesis is not a book’ without offering any grounds for this claim. In this post I shall substantiate my claim by describing and commenting on the main differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. Obviously, some theses are more book-like than others while a fair few academic books are not particularly good in their scholarship and/or in their authorship.

start-bridge

Purpose

Thesis: To test the student’s competence and establish academic credentials.

Book: To communicate ideas/research results.

Comment: The difference in purpose, as in author and readership (below), means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

 Form

Thesis: Often book-like but usually amateur in appearance.

Book: It is a book and normally is produced to professional publishing standards.

Comment: Producing a book-like thesis is risky but may be unavoidable. My previous post explores this issue.

 Length

Thesis: Often a lower limit, but not always an upper limit (sometimes the assumption being that the greater length, the greater the scholarship).

Book: Limited by market forces (printing cost, shipping weight, retail price, reader expectations, etc.)

Comment: The whole issue of book length (and word count) is explored here.

 Author

Thesis: Student (writing to pass scrutiny and assert academic credibility).

Book: Writer (aiming to communicate but with obligations to readers).

Comment: Arguably, the student is an involuntary author whereas the writer has choice (but that is to deny the enduring power of the old adage ‘publish or perish’; teachers have other obligations but researchers especially are chained to a publication treadmill).

Readership

Thesis: Panel of examiners tasked to evaluate the student.

Book: Colleagues and anyone else interested in the subject and in learning.

Comment: The difference in readership (between a group that is known and self-contained and one that is amorphous, undefinable and largely anonymous) is subtle but means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

Focus on

Thesis: Author (the student, who is being examined).

Book: Reader.

Comment: Again, the difference in orientation creates a subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Scholarship

Thesis: Exposition required (to demonstrate knowledge).

Book: Absorbed and built on (to frame discourse).

Comment: Theoretical framework is not the only issue here but it is a major one that I explore in greater detail here.

Approach

Thesis: Defensive exposition (to panel of examiners).

Book: Open disclosure (‘selling’ an argument/research results to often unknown and possibly sceptical peers).

Comment: Another reason for the subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Treatment of subject

Thesis: Often highly technical and very detailed.

Book: Avoids unnecessary technical detail.

Comment: Many factors are at play here, not only length and approach (as above) but also things like how experienced the author is as a writer. That said, remember that we are comparing the typical thesis and a good scholarly book; there are plenty of experienced authors with an obsession with detail.

Language

Thesis: Often obscure, abstract and heavy on jargon.

Book: Clear with judicious use of technical terms where needed.

Comment: As per treatment of subject (above) but substitute ‘impenetrable prose’ for ‘an obsession with detail’.

Structure

Thesis: Often progressive recitation (along a preordained railway track).

Book: Organic unity, with narrative thread drawing the disparate elements together.

Comment: Arguably, the difference is more about the author’s skills and experience as a writer than any inherent distinction between thesis and book.

Narrative flow

Thesis: Orderly exposition but argument not built; often excessive signposting.

Book: Builds argument, linking chapters with subtlety; has pace and momentum.

Comment: As per structure (above), i.e. more about the writing skills and experience (less likely among new authors).

Ending

Thesis: Often ends quite abruptly.

Book: Wrapped by conclusions.

Comment: Structure and narrative flow (above), hence writing skills and experience, are usually at work here.

Methodology

Thesis: Detailed description required.

Book: Description only if and when relevant.

Comment: Methodology has much the same role as theory – see scholarship (above).

Referencing

Thesis: Often far more than strictly necessary.

Book: Only what is necessary.

Comment: Excessive referencing is typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality found in many theses but is not unknown among experienced authors. Unfortunately, every citation is a ‘speed bump’, reducing the readability of a text.

Quotations

Thesis: Necessary, often extensive.

Book: Limited use.

Comment: Also typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality is excessive quoting of the work of other scholars (both in length and frequency). Usually, students can get away with this in a thesis but the same excess in a published work (whether a book or article) could provoke accusations of breach of copyright and ‘fair use’.

Evaluation before completion

Thesis: Feedback from supervisor; final assessment by panel of examiners.

Book: Publisher’s commercial assessment, peer-review process and editorial input.

Comment: The difference in part relates to readership (above) but never assume that the commercial interests of a publisher and the academic needs of an author are completely aligned (far from it). A detailed description of editorial input begins here.

Evaluation afterwards

Thesis: Formal defence.

Book: Reviews published in journals and other external forums.

Comment: As per evaluation beforehand (above), readership plays a part but ultimately purpose (above) is especially important here.

footbridge

Where now?

As you can see, there are differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. However, every thesis is different, likewise every monograph. The question is, then, where does your thesis fit in this matrix and what do you need to do to transform it into a career-building book?

Time to put on your analyst’s hat and start planning. In a subsequent post, I shall follow this process.


Rethinking ‘thesis’ as ‘book’

12 May 2013

I have long argued that ‘a thesis is not a book’ and in my next post I shall outline my reasons why. Because of this, I have warned PhD students against the practice of ‘publication’ of their thesis by the home institution. Here, typically, the thesis is laid out and printed in book form (fancy cover and all) and may even be offered for sale on a limited basis. Recently, some have been appearing as e-books.

Serbo-Croation-kms

Let’s face it, however; I am still against these fake books (or at least their excessive distribution as library exchange copies) but the battle is probably lost here and in any case it may not matter. Time instead to minimise the damage, accentuate the positive.

Why? There are several reasons:

  1. Brutal reality. While you need to publish with a ‘reputable publisher’ to build an academic career, if at its outset the faculty demands publication of the thesis, this cannot be avoided.
  2. Your faculty may be right. Theft of your ideas and research results is a possibility. Online publication of your thesis is a kind of patenting process but that is only the first step; you need to assert your intellectual rights by publishing material from the thesis (see below).
  3. The market. Too much is being published but more than likely publishers are still hungry for fresh, new perspectives in your field. (If they are not, then your thesis topic may be a dead end; that’s another discussion.)

That said, I am certain there are quite a few publishers out there who would violently disagree with me (the same publishers who would not consider publishing a monograph that includes chapters already published in another form as journal articles; I sometimes wonder if a few of my publishing colleagues aren’t living in a parallel universe). The reality of the situation is something else; the old adage ‘publish or perish’ is true and today that means publish now not at a leisurely future date.

(Of course, you may not be required by your department to produce your thesis in book form and instead your may be tempted by an offer for ‘free publication’ of your thesis. Here’s why you should think hard about this.)

As such, if both initial publication of your thesis and its subsequent publication in another form by a ‘real’ publisher are unavoidable, the trick is to ensure that these two actions are not mutually exclusive. Here are a few thoughts about achieving this.

1) I realise that many students write their theses with a future book in mind; only minor tweaking is needed to produce the finished monograph. However, if you think hard about the differences between thesis and book (listed in my next post), you will have an action list for revision. Be warned: this may involve more than minor tweaking.

2) Think strategically about your career and the publication list on your CV. Regardless of whether or not both thesis and book are to be published, make sure that they have quite different titles and that you reserve the ‘sexier’ title for your book. The same applies for any journal articles, book chapters, etc. More about this here.

3) Even if you haven’t yet finished your thesis, start publishing material from your research now – as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, whatever – at the same time that you work on your thesis.

4) But if the thesis is finished (or nearly there), don’t believe the publishers who say you should contemplate your material and publish this as a monograph in five years time. Yes, you may need ‘distance’ from your thesis to complete the monograph but the clock is ticking on your career. The time is now for mining and reworking material from the thesis – again, as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, etc. – at the same time that you work on your monograph.

5) Don’t forget the discards. There may be all sorts of interesting material that you omitted from your thesis or won’t be included in your final monograph. Be a creative scavenger and rework these discards into articles or even future research and book projects.

One last thing: if you have just finished your thesis, well, the clock may be ticking on your career but take time out to savour your achievement. You’ve earned it!


Tortoise and hare

1 May 2013

While this may be blindingly obvious, there is quite a difference in sales of a typical history book (slow but steady) and of one focused on current affairs (“up like a rocket, down like a stick”). If you are writing such books, to avoid disappointment, you need to take this difference in sales behaviour in mind – and work to avoid this pattern.

For instance, sales of a recent NIAS Press book on the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster in Japan – and timed to appear on the second anniversary of the disaster – have shot off like a hare. In contrast, a history of women and power in Cambodia had less dramatic initial sales when published five years ago but it continues to sell, week after week. (I hardly need say that the study is not a tortoise – far from it; this is a bravura work – but the image is suggestive of the sales figures.)

hare-and-tortoise

Why should this be?

In part it is an issue of relevance and topicality. As we said in my youth, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. Even two years after the triple disaster and with a change in government, the consequent issues facing Japan still remain as do most policy responses. However, in five years time, the disaster won’t be topical anymore (the horror will have lost its potency) and new events will make the book’s analysis less relevant. As such, sales will decline, maybe quite steeply.

In contrast, the issue of women and power in Cambodian history is not exactly a great talking point in the world’s cafes and bars today (except perhaps in Phnom Penh). Why then does the book continue to sell, even to be adopted for various undergraduate courses? Here, relevance and scholarship are at play. As one reviewer said about Lost Goddesses, “this is an exceptional book of considerable merit that will be of interest to a wide range of academics working in history, anthropology, gender studies, politics, religion and Southeast Asian studies”.

In a similar vein, every now and then a copy is sold of a history of economic decision-making in Vietnam, published by us in 1998. Aimed at Vietnam specialists, it never sold many copies but still it plods along. On the other hand, back in about 2001 there was a rash of books published in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis but nowadays I doubt that anyone is buying (or even consulting) these – unless, that is, readers are looking for parallels to today’s global economic woes.

This does not mean that you are condemned by your subject to play the role of the long-lived tortoise or ephemeral hare. Right now you can be sure that many authors are working to complete bright, new studies of the First World War, aimed for release on the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. Their publishers will be planning on massive sales that hopefully continue at a lower but profitable level in the years thereafter (unlikely unless the authors have indeed something new to say).

Likewise, in The Making of the President, political journalist Theodore White told the story of the 1960 US presidential campaign and election of John F. Kennedy. This national bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winning account revolutionized the way US presidential campaigns are reported and remains to this day (claims Amazon) the most influential publication about the election of John F. Kennedy.

Here, we have it, three factors are at work: topicality, relevance and scholarship/quality. Just remember that no subject is condemned to focus on a sub-set of these three contributors to writing success (history can be topical and current affairs relevant long after the use-by date). Remember, too, that topicality, relevance and scholarship are not the only winning factors – readability and (self-) promotion are equally important.